For all of us who still read newspapers, May 9 was a morning for banner headlines in North Carolina. The good news was that Raleigh’s own Josh Hamiltonthe tattooed, star-crossed, substance-tormented Texas Rangers superstarhad hit four home runs in a night game against Baltimore.

Hamilton is the fourth player to hit four in a game in this century, and only the 16th in the history of Major League Baseball. It’s a feat even more rare than pitching a perfect game: In the first 100 years of the American League, it happened only three times. He added a double to set the league record of 18 total bases. When he’s healthy, sober and properly aligned, Hamilton is the closest thing we’ll ever see to an incarnation of Roy Hobbs, “The Natural” of Bernard Malamud’s novel and the Robert Redford movietruly the best ballplayer on earth. Like the fictional Hobbs and the late Babe Ruth, who never hit four home runs in a game, Hamilton first came to the big league scouts’ attention as an unhittable high school pitcher.

Against all odds Josh Hamilton, at 31, has become a great source of local pride in North Carolina. He provided all the pride that was still available May 9. The other banner headline confirmed that Tar Heel voters had passed the Republican “Marriage Amendment” to the state’s constitution by a generous margin, 61 to 39 percent. We had joined 30 other states in codifying a belief that God Almighty Himself delivered the guidebook for human mating to a desert tribe in the Middle East a few millennia ago, and that He has no plans to update that guidebook, certainly not to indulge the domestic aspirations of homosexuals. (If you’d like to laugh out loud at those who would compel us to live our lives according to the Scriptures, please read the obsessive-compulsive Book of Leviticus.) North Carolina, which had edged toward political respectability since the death of Jesse Helms and its blue-state vote for Barack Obama in 2008, was once again a bad joke and the laughingstock of the moment for the national media.

The Marriage Amendment is a prime example of the cruel mischief, the legislative vandalism that belligerent reactionaries have been committing all over the map since their unfortunate resurgence in the 2010 elections. They love to interpret ancient texts like the Bible or the Koran (and the U.S. Constitution?) to justify contemporary prejudices and pathologies. Remember that the Bible was also quoted to legitimize segregation and misogyny, and not so long ago slavery. If some remote corner of your mind still harbors the notion that God is a straight white man, friend, I can guarantee you that no wisdom will ever come your way.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less” is a quote attributed to former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki. It merits consideration by the Republican Party and the Christian fundamentalists, and in this particular case by me, as well. Even Our Lord might benefit from thinking about it. (Blasphemy doesn’t scare us old Unitarians.) No perceptive observer will deny that in 10 years’ time, marriage, however it’s defined, will be available to anyone who wants it. This knowledge requires a certain change of perspective, even for people like me who take the tolerant side of the argument. I applaud Barack Obama’s conversion, but there are different ways of changing your mind about marriage. Is it a bit of a surprise to see modern marriage held in such universally high esteem, both by bigots who defend it like a fortress and by their victims who pursue it like a prize?

You bet it is. A few years ago, when a radio interviewer asked me if I supported marriage for gay people, I replied semi-facetiously that I supported it only for gay people. Some comedian, asked the same question, answered “Sure, why should they escape?” Most of us who were encouraged to marryin no few cases hoodwinked, cajoled or even coerced into marryingrarely thought of marriage as a civil right or a blessed privilege. (Disclosure: I’ve been married for all but six of the 40-odd years since I escaped from graduate school, and I like to think I’m getting better at it. But you’d have to check that with my wife.) I can speak only for a generation of straight old men with no great investment in orthodox theology. But if you had asked me in my prime what I thought of marriage, I’d have answered that marriage is to love or making love as the IRS is to making money. And far from some abiding covenant with the Lord, the uneven history of marriage has been much more about maintaining tribal strength, managing family property and subjugating females than about romantic love or sanctified devotion.

Read Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz (Viking, 2005) for historical perspective that strips away much of the schmaltz with which Western marriage has recently become encrusted. Launch your Bible study with this helpful tip from First Corinthians: “Better to marry than to burn,” offers the Apostle Paul. Thank you kindly, St. Paulis that the advice of an apostle or an opossum?

Marriage is only what we make of it, I guess. Legions of us, sometimes more than once, have made a painful mess of it. But an exceptionally well-matched couple, with two partners who are patient, good-natured and quick to forgiveand blessed with the best of luckcan make something exceptionally fine of it. As conservative and skeptical as I tend to be in my very late middle age, I can think of no reason why that ideal couple has to be one man and one woman.

Evangelicals can rage as they wish and tear up our constitutions out of self-righteous petulance. (Divorce rates, incidentally, are higher in red states with Bible Belt profiles, probably because people marry younger and with less caution.) Rush Limbaugh, whose next failed marriage will be his fourth, can somehow rush to the defense of holy matrimony without hearing his own sound engineer snickering out in the hall. In spite of such Neanderthals, gay people are going to get their chance to prove that marriage is a healthy institution with a promising future. Articulate, well-organized and in step with a live-and-let-live culture, they’re certain to win this battle, and I sincerely wish them better luck than some of us battered veterans who blazed the trail.

The Marriage Amendment is a travesty, a giant step backward for North Carolina. For the national media it was merely a brief interruption, a curious footnote to their avid coverage of the John Edwards trial, perhaps the grossest tabloid extravaganza ever to shame this venerable commonwealth. Sick voyeurs and paparazzi flocked to Greensboro for “the ghastly soap opera,” as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus contemptuously described it. Edwards was being lynched for his crimes against marriage, and his trial is a public flaying designed for reality television. Sadists could watch the inquisitors peel each layer of privacy and dignity from the adulterous ex-senator who earned the world’s contempt as the recklessly unfaithful husband of a very significant and sympathetic woman, and one who was terminally ill.

Edwards writhes again. Who could defend such a man? But it was clear from the start that the state had no case against this broken wretch, this pariah who at one point scored the lowest public approval rating of any politician ever rated. The prosecution’s star witness, Edwards’ Judas and onetime acolyte Andrew Young, quickly established himself as one of the least credible individuals ever to testify in a criminal trial. The only thing the prosecutors appeared to have going for them was a helpful judgea womanwho refused to dismiss the case or expose the jury to the expert testimony of Scott Thomas, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. Thomas has confidently rejected the state’s basic argument, that campaign financing laws were violated by the stream of cash from heiress Bunny Mellon that Young used to hide Edwards’ mistress and to build his own home.

The criminal charges against Edwards, which no neutral lawyer seems to comprehend, were the work of a former U.S. Attorney, one George Holding, aide and protégé of the late Sen. Jesse Helms. Holding has now won himself a congressional seat in a district gerrymandered so that no Republican can ever lose there. Even his defeated primary opponent, Paul Coblecoincidentally Jesse Helms’ nephewconceded that Holding’s prosecution of Edwards was a political takedown, in that great tradition of Republican justice we associate with Alberto Gonzales and Karl Rove.

Debates about marriage are always stimulating, but for me the unifying theme here is bullying. It was unlucky for Mitt Romney when high school classmates unmasked him as a teenage bullyespecially because his victim was targeted for looking effeminate. It was unfortunate because Romney will be the presidential candidate of a party where bullying is becoming the norm, and nowhere more crudely than in North Carolina. Bullying is picking on the easiest target in sight, whether that individual is small, weak, conspicuously different or highly unpopular. It’s what all the nastiest cowards do with their aggressions.

Where could you find an easier target than John Edwards? This is not about whether you think Edwards is a louse. Everyone knows he’s a louse, and knew it long before this trial. The point is that he’s been face down on the sidewalk bleeding for several years, barely breathing, and now his old enemies have decided to tap dance on his head. It’s not about whether you think he deserves it, or deserves worse. It’s about whether you enjoy watching him bleed and groan and cry out in his misery. It’s about you, friend.

North Carolina’s gay community is another easy target, a small minority that will always be unpopular with a certain type of Christian. We have lots of those Christians in this state, and they tend to vote. It’s safe to say that no Tar Heel ever lost an election because he was too hard on homosexuals. (Remember that Edwards, too, was targeted for “sissy” and “girlie man” abuse from Republicans, who ridiculed him as “the Breck girl” for his fashion-model features and expensive coiffure.)

But the Marriage Amendment carries an especially rank smell because it revives a grim tradition of gay-bashing in our politics, one that’s inextricably linked to the late, lamentable Sen. Helms. “AIDS is the result of disgusting, revolting behavior” and “The Department of Agriculture is being overrun by homosexuals” are two Helms quotes from my personal collection. We can also thank him for adding “garden-variety lesbian” to the congressional lexicon. Jesse accused his 1990 Senate opponent, Harvey Gantt, of waging a campaign “paid for, orchestrated and controlled by homosexuals and lesbians and the labor unions and the People for the American Way and the ACLU,” etc.

Helms, a natural bully, was by no means an intelligent man. But he was astute enough to understand that a party of bullies always needs a common enemy to inflame its rank and file. In the beginning, as a Dixiecrat defending Jim Crow, he derided black people openly. As a right-of-Bismarck Republican, he moved on to the “comm’nists,” then to “secular humanists” and “outside agitators” (both widely interpreted to mean Jews). He finally settled his wrath on homosexuals, the last minority without a significant bloc of voters to defend them. The presence of Helms’ protégé and his nephew on the same Republican ballot with the Marriage Amendment has given us a vertiginous sense of sliding back, of history slipping into reverse. A Helms resurrectionor exhumationseemed blessedly out of the question when Obama won North Carolina in 2008.

Things are not going well in Tar Heel country. Our latest sorrow is the reliable report of a Ku Klux Klan recruiting party in Iredell County. (I don’t claim Jesse kept a hood of his own, but he controlled every last vote that had a hood attached to it.) But the parade of bullies doesn’t halt at North Carolina’s borders, and the legacy and influence of Helms isn’t limited to Tobacco Road. Helms was also a man of Washington, and there his spirit lives on, ferociously, in the neocon Rottweiler John Bolton. It’s not impossible to pardon Mitt Romney for bullying a classmate 50 years ago, but what frightens me profoundly is the news (reported in The Nation) that he’s turning to Bolton, a sort of Darth Vader with a walrus mustache, for advice on foreign policy. For an analogy, imagine turning to Henry VIII for marriage counseling. If you lack any other reason to vote for President Obama, keeping Bolton out of the State Departmentwhere Newt Gingrich promised to put him in chargeis literally a matter of life and death.

Voters have shorter and shorter memories, it seems. But we must never forget Bolton, a Helms protégé of an earlier vintage who won Jesse’s heart as a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. Bolton helped Helms and Tom Ellis set up Jefferson Marketing, an ingenious ancestor of today’s SuperPACs that empowered the senator and his political coven to evade restrictions on campaign financing, which in those days were taken seriously. It was far from Bolton’s most dubious achievement. Propelled by Helms’ influential recommendations, he served in the Justice Department under Ronald Reaganhis fingerprints were visible in the Iran-Contra Scandaland in the State Department under both Bushes. When Republican bullies stormed Florida precincts to stop the vote counts in the disputed presidential election of 2000, Bolton led the assault in person. As a State Department super-hawk in 2003Dick Cheney just loves this guyhe was one of the architects of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq.

Whenever, wherever America behaves arrogantly and squanders its moral and geopolitical capital, you’ll find a few white hairs from that walrus mustache. This is one of the ugliest Americans ever. Besides his roots in the Helms machine, Bolton is an important exhibit in this case because he is the prince, the field marshal, the generalissimo of bullies. During the Senate confirmation hearings for his highest government post, ambassador to the United Nations, hostile witnesses called him rude, arrogant and abrasive. A woman who worked for him at the USAID accused him of hurling objects around their office and mocking her weight and sexual orientation. (He called her “a fat lesbian”?) Most tellingly, a former colleague described him as “a kiss-up, kick-down sort of guy”both a bully and a sycophant. If you’re one of those repugnant individuals, or fear that you might become one, be warned that they are the lowest form of human life.

Bolton’s nomination was eventually blocked by appalled Republican senators, so George W. Bush used a breach appointment to send him to the UN, where he foamed and blustered for more than a year and set American diplomacy back 100 years. As a diplomat, Bolton converted Teddy Roosevelt’s “Speak softly and carry a big stick” to “Scream at the top of your lungs, carry a big stick studded with spikes and swing it wildly in every direction.” Bullying, interpersonal or international, is all of a piece; Bolton is the kind of man who would hold down weak nations and cut off their hairwhich pretty much describes the debacle in Iraq.

“John Bolton is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon,” Helms once said of his disciple. Unsaid, of course, is that he’s exactly the kind of man who might trigger Armageddon. If Bolton had been sitting at Hillary Clinton’s desk, with some insecure cipher like Romney to set him loose, there’s little doubt that Tehran would be in ashes and a world war under way.

Once again the Republican inner circle opens its arms to the über-bully, heir to the Helms tradition of demonizing and attacking everyone you don’t resemble or understand. Bullies everywhere are responding to the call. Republican legislators in Virginia have blocked the judicial nomination of a Richmond prosecutor who is openly gay. Here in beleaguered North Carolina, a Baptist minister emboldened no doubt by the success of the Marriage Amendment and the big Klanbake just down the roadstood in his pulpit under the cross and called for the internment of gays and lesbians in concentration camps with electrified fences.

Seriously, it’s on the Internet. “Feed ’em, and you know what? In a few years they’ll die out,” explained the minister of God, Charles Worley, 71. “Do you know why? They can’t reproduce.”

This time the rest of the country didn’t laugh or sneer at us. It stared in amazement, in horror. This was just one bigot, one idiot, but members of his congregation were whooping and laughing and murmuring “Amen.” The Rev. Worley also called President Obama “a baby killer and a homosexual lover.” Something is bringing the vermin out of the woodwork; someone’s encouraging the worst among us to speak out and step forward. That someone appears to be a crop of new “leaders” who call themselves Republicans and, most ironically, Christians. What they’ve unleashed feels more like a pogrom than a culture war. We’re having a bigot’s revival and a bully’s carnival in North Carolina, and the infection may be spreading. A lot of us are terribly ashamed, and a whole lot more should be.

This article appeared in print with the headline “A bully’s carnival.”